"It's not right to make innocent people suffer," says the storekeeper, meaning his regular customers.
"Those who think themselves better than others are not innocent," says the minority leader.
"But don't you understand--I was forced to do what I did."
"Cowards are even less innocent than hypocrites."
|Robert Loggia as Elfego Baca|
You've likely never heard of him. I hadn't. But he wrote this episode of what by then was called Walt Disney Presents in the late 1950s. It was one of the series of hour-long stories centered on Elfego Baca, a Mexican-born hero of the American West, played by Robert Loggia.
We often think of westerns, so popular in my 1950s childhood, as a lot of fistfights, shooting and riding, and especially cowboys v. Indians. But many were more than that, and few were as simplistic.
Maurice Tombragel. After a decade writing a variety of B movies, he turned to television, especially westerns. Before Disney, throughout the 1950s he wrote for The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, Annie Oakley, The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Jim Bowie, Bat Masterson, the Range Rider. I watched them all.
The series episodes were digitally restored and are now available on DVD and on YouTube. They are kind of amazing. The plots are both simple and complex (some involving finance and real estate deals), and there's plenty of riding, fistfighting and shooting. But there is also a common thread: Hoppy is always fighting for the oppressed, for people who are helpless against the more powerful, including those in authority. He fights for people who are being cheated, and are the victims of prejudice and hate.
When Indians appear, they are either being set up as villains by white land-grabbers or victims of attempted swindles. The bad guys are usually motivated by greed. He defends Mexicans, and there's even an episode about human trafficking.
(The Lone Ranger, who rode into television next, was also this kind of western hero. Clayton Moore, who played the LR, appears in a Hopalong Cassidy episode--as a bad guy.)
Did I absorb attitudes from these shows, perhaps even develop a social conscience because of them? I think I did, partly. Not only from my TV heroes, but certainly they were powerful in reinforcing and defining who the good guys and bad guys were, and why.
It's especially interesting to me at this historical moment to observe the historical moment when these shows were made. People think of the bland 1950s, but apart from the atomic bomb and the Korean War, there was Joe McCarthy and the Blacklist, and the early Civil Rights movement and events.
But I think in some ways the most important element was that the memories and the meaning of World War II were still being absorbed. The end of the war was only four years in the past when Hopalong Cassidy first hit the airwaves, and the Nuremberg trials only three years.
eloquent radio programs for CBS, there eventually was widespread awareness of the evils of Nazism and fascism in the 40s, and that education continued after the war.
The contrast was often drawn between the US as defender of the oppressed, as a citadel of freedom from oppression. For writers of even TV westerns, that consciousness transferred to other causes.
It wasn't always westerns. When Superman flew out of the comics and into radio, he was heard battling religious bigots and the Ku Klux Klan. The opening familiar from television ("truth, justice and the American Way") also included on radio a description of Superman as “champion of equal rights, valiant, courageous fighter against the forces of hate and prejudice.”
Superman in this series fought crime but also defended the unjustly accused, and in an early second season episode with a plot that had appeared in the comics, he battled against the clock to stop an innocent man from being executed.
Despite the dangers (i.e. every online argument, it is said, eventually gets to one or both sides accusing the other of being Nazis), I hark back to the Nazi era pretty frequently here. One reason is that the generation that experienced World War II and may have seen Nazi Germany up close and personal, is all but gone. Those of us who grew up on stories that had the Nazi experience fresh in their backgrounds and perspectives are getting pretty old as well. But for as long as we can, we have to represent that perspective when it is important to do so. As it seems to be right now.